Sign In Forgot Password

Parashat Vayak'hel: How to Make a Big Tent

03/05/2019 05:24:15 PM


Bill Gotthelf

I had this devious plan, that by waiting until 52 to become Bar Mitzvah, I could get away with a small, quiet, low-key service, and spare myself the pressure and anxiety we put the kids through. But my plan didn’t work. And maybe that’s a good thing. Because now I get to experience exactly what the kids do, when they’re asked to share something deeply meaningful, but not yet fully understood, with an overwhelming number of people. And to try to speak slowly, and clearly, without rushing. And to remember to look up occasionally, and acknowledge your 320 bright, shining faces looking back, without losing my place.

Because my devious plan failed, I get to experience what it really feels like to be a Bar Mitzvah boy. Or at least, the particular experience of one big old Bar Mitzvah boy, with a graying beard, and receding hairline, and no more time, or reason, to procrastinate.

So let’s talk about the Parssha.

This is called “Parashat Vayak’hel: How to Make a Big Tent”.

I like tents. There’s something comforting about a shelter that can travel with you.

Judaism has a rich tradition of tent appreciation going back to our 40-year trek through the wilderness in Sh’mot, the Book of Exodus. This sanctuary that we’re gathered in today is designed to evoke a tent, with its peaked ceiling and exposed beams, so when we sing “mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov” (how beautiful are your tents, Jacob) we can look up and feel connected.

Parashat Vahak’hel, this week’s portion, is about building the mishkan, the tent of tents. It’s the portable sanctuary the Israelites are commanded to build so that, God tells Moses (25:8), “I may dwell among them.”

Except, the rabbis tell us, “v’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham” more accurately translates to, “let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them.” Suggesting that the tent is not the ultimate receptacle for holiness; but by building the tent, and kindling its light, the Israelites will bring holiness within themselves, into their hearts. It’s a transformative moment in the God-Israelite relationship, when the God who dwells in the heavens becomes the God who dwells within. When the remote, terrifying God who thunders from above, in a cloud of fire, becomes an intimate voice of compassion from a spark within.

Which gives this wandering refugee encampment of downcast, soul-crushed ex-slaves, on their long journey toward redemption, the ability to see themselves, and each other, b’tzelem Elohim - in God’s image - as human beings with inherent dignity, purpose, and promise.

And this transformation happens, we’re told, when we make a big tent.

So it’s important to understand how to make this tent, because they don’t sell it at REI. Let’s look at the text. “Vayak’hel Moshe et kol eidat b’nei yisrael…” it begins (35:1), “And Moses convoked the entire cohort of the children of Israel…”

It’s important to note the double emphasis on inclusion in this first verse, summoning not just the whole community, but everyone within the whole community. Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about an egalitarian society that avoids making distinctions based on class, gender, or ethnicity. The use of inclusive language for this convocation is unusual, distinctive, and deliberate.

In Torah study, reading an ancient text written in masculine form in a patriarchal era, we’re used to half the community feeling left out of many of these major addresses. Not this one. This one is not for the tribal elders, or the men of military age, or the priests. It’s for everyone.

And after reminding everyone to keep Shabbat, so they aren’t working on the tent when they are supposed to be resting, the instructions continue. “Take from among you gifts to the Eternal, everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring them,” Moses tells the Israelites.  To build the mishkan, they are given a detailed gift registry of the finest materials available to a wandering tribe in the wilderness: gold, silver, copper, fine linens, acacia wood, lapis lazuli, dolphin skins...  Altogether, twelve materials are named, in seven categories: metals, textiles, skins, wood, oil, spices, and precious stones. And we know that twelve and seven, in the Torah, are not just numbers. They carry symbolic significance.

I’d like to suggest an interpretation echoing verse 1, that these numbers re-emphasize the inclusion of everyone in this commandment. Something like: twelve materials so that each member of the twelve tribes can find a commensurate way to participate in this creative process, regardless of background, status, or material possessions. And seven categories to represent the wholeness of the community, like the wholeness of the seven days of Creation. The materials aren’t ranked in any hierarchy of value or quantity. The only qualification is that they come from the heart.

This language of inclusion continues throughout the organization and building of the mishkan. In case we missed Moses’ first invitation to the whole Israelite community and everyone within it in verse 1, it’s echoed in verse 5, “everyone whose heart is so moved” and again in verse 10, “let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Eternal has commanded.”

The Torah doesn’t repeat things for no reason; to give a similar message in two or three consecutive ways conveys emphasis.

In Parashat Vayak’hel, we get this message of inclusion at least fifteen times in the first 27 verses, by my count. After the global “everyone” is emphasized and re-emphasized, it’s broken down into more detail: seven different groups of people with seven different types of possessions, skills, and inclinations:

  1. Men and women with gold objects
  2. Everyone who possessed blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, and dolphin skins
  3. Everyone who would make gifts of silver or copper
  4. Everyone who possessed acacia wood
  5. Skilled women who spun with their own hands in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen
  6. Women who excelled in spinning goats’ hair
  7. Chieftains with lapis lazuli and fine stones for setting, and spices and oil.


Summarized in verse 29, “Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Eternal, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Eternal.”

So, just as the tent itself is not the receptacle for holiness, but represents the process by which the people foster holiness within, the various materials and methods specified to build the mishkan are a mirror of the community commanded to build it. In fact, we discover toward the end of the Parsha, that the Israelites’ literal copper mirrors are hammered into the mishkan’s ritual washing basin. Like a reflecting pool imprinted with the faces of the community, even before it is filled with water.

By definition, the mishkan is of and by everyone whose heart moves them, regardless of tribal background, possessions, skill, ability, gender, or social status. That’s a pretty radical inclusion statement for a several thousand-year-old patriarchal tribe barely a year out of slavery.

And they do it. Verse by verse, they fulfill God’s lengthy, complicated instructions for building the mishkan, down to the last detail. They do so freely and purposefully, because they are moved to bring gifts and to build the sanctuary. They do so cooperatively and faithfully, publicly affirming their commitment to community and commandment. In other words, they become b’nei mitzvah. Everyone, together, from the heart -- the first adult b’nei mitzvah service.

To be clear, the text doesn’t actually say this explicitly. Becoming bar, let alone bat mitzvah was not yet a practice in biblical times. But I can’t think of a better example of becoming b’nei mitzvah, of voluntarily taking on the responsibilities of Jewish personhood and peoplehood. To me, this story models what it means to become b’nei mitzvah.

And when b’nei Yisrael becomes b’nei mitzvah in this mishkan-building ritual, we’ve heard emphatically who participates: everyone within the entire community, whose hearts are moved to do so. Women, men, all ages, every tribe, Israelites by birth and those who joined them along the way – at one big tent, near the foot of a mountain.

It sounds a lot like a Boulder Reform service. Without the English translation, of couse. And with just the basic manna package for the kiddush lunch. No deluxe platters with the fancy capers and lox. Because they had just put all their gold and silver into the building fund.

So the three takeaways I’d like to offer from Parashat Vayak’hel this morning are these:

  • Number one - to us as individuals - that each of us, without exception, can see ourselves at Sinai. If we are moved to do so, each of us can take a role in building our tent.
  • Number two - to us as a community - that by definition, it takes the entire community to make a big tent. Everyone has to be included, which is obvious to say but harder to do. Because lots of people feel alienated, uncomfortable, or ambivalent for lots of reasons, which leads to takeaway
  • Number three: we’re not finished making the big tent. A lot of people don’t have a clear way in. A lot of people feel a disconnect between the gifts they have to offer, and the requirements to build the mishkan. Jewish liturgy and ritual is hard, and complicated, and can be really intimidating to those who feel that their Jewish education, and proficiency, and basic competence aren’t commensurate with their age. Or who weren’t raised Jewish. Or who were stubborn teenagers and refused to learn it when they were supposed to (like me). Or alienating, for those who weren’t fully included in Jewish ritual because their community didn’t allow girls to chant Torah.

Adult b’nei mitzvah helps bring people into the tent, by providing a path to overcome these stumbling blocks, and culminating in a two-way affirmation of inclusion and commitment: from the individual to the community and from the community to the individual. As our community grows, diversifies, and evolves, so must our symbolic twelve materials and seven categories grow, diversify, and evolve, to enable our mishkan to mirror our collective gifts of the heart. Like the first adult b’nei mitzvah story at Sinai, the adult b’nei mitzvah program at Har HaShem helps teach us how to make a big tent.

So having spent most of my life feeling very much at home in the REI tent, but not so much at home in the Jewish tent, I am grateful to have shared the past year and a half of Sunday mornings with our adult b’nei mitzvah teachers and students, whose gifts from the heart helped give me, and hopefully all of us, a stronger sense of belonging.

And mah tovu, how beautiful it is, to be here with all of you, this Shabbat morning, in our big tent.

Shabbat shalom.

Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784